27 October, 2008

"The Battle for Spain: the Spanish Civil War 1936-1939" by Antony Beevor

I have been reading this chunky book on and off for an age, and now I am finished. This book is a completely rewritten version of a book Beevor wrote on the Spanish Civil War ages ago, with the opening of the Soviet-era archives being what most justified a new take on the war. People who are interested in publication histories and versions of books may be interested to learn that this new book was originally published in Spain, and that it has been somewhat truncated for the Anglophone world.

So yeah, the Spanish Civil War. It's a depressing business, really. The bad guys win. The good guys never look they ever have a chance of winning. And the good guys aren't actually that good, being either total cockfarmers or total losers (or both). Just in case you have never heard of the Spanish Civil War, it began when some generals staged a coup against a leftist government. On one side we have the Nationalists – an alliance of right-wing generals, fascists, monarchists, Catholic traditionalists, and a bunch of weird monarchists called The Carlists; the Nationalists received considerable external support from Hitler and Mussolini. The other side, the Republicans, was a leftist hoe-down of liberal republicans, anarchists, socialists, and communists, together with some regional parties; the USSR gave the Republicans a degree of ambiguous support.

The Nationalists won for a couple of reasons. Firstly, they were far better at submerging their differences and uniting against the common enemy. Beevor shows well how the various Nationalist factions were willing to settle for an outcome that (for them) was often suboptimal, but which was better than letting the other side win. The Republicans remained internally divided, with the most bitter tensions being between the communists and their enemies and between centralisers and regionalists. The Nationalists also received much better support from their external allies, with the military assistance of Nazi Germany in particular playing a major part in their victory. The Republicans did receive support from the Soviet Union, and could not have continued the war without it, but nothing they received matched the power of the forces sent from Germany. The Soviets also tied their support to the advancement of their allies within Republican Spain while charging the Republicans exploitative rates for it. The third reason for the Nationalist victory was the grossly incompetent leadership of Republican forces, with battle after battle seeing the same failed offensive tactics being employed. The Nationalists did also make mistakes, but they seemed far more able to learn from them.

It strikes me that the two underlying narratives in this book are Franco's inexorable march to victory, and the extent to which the communists in Spain were total cockfarmers. You never really get any sense that Franco could have been stopped – he had so many cards in his favour that victory for the Nationalists seems almost pre-ordained. But the actions of the communists ultimately helped him on his way. While Soviet support played a key role in keeping the Republicans in the game, it came with an extra dollop of communist paranoia, Soviet advisors and secret police operatives bringing the show trial mindset to Spain. The Republican zone saw the emergence of a mini-police state, with the real or perceived enemies of the Spanish communists and the USSR suffering imprisonment or summary execution.

The effect of communist influence on the military field was perhaps more pernicious. Arms were often refused to units whose commanders refused to join the Spanish communists, and the Soviet advisors saw to it that the Republican war effort followed the stultifying line emanating from Moscow. This saw all efforts focussed on set-piece assaults by massed infantry, with the Republic staging a series of disastrous offensives that could have been lifted from the Western Front of the First World War. Communist paranoia meant that all failures were attributed not to bad military doctrine, unrealistic expectations, poor planning, or an unexpectedly vigorous response by the enemy, but to the influence of Trotskyist-Fascist fifth columnists, so military offensives were often followed by witch-hunts and purges in units that failed to meet their objectives.

But in this day and age, pointing out the failings of communists seems about as relevant as denouncing the double dealing of the Girondins. Does a study of the Spanish Civil War offer any useful insights into the conflicts of today? Eh, I'll have to come back to you on that one.


Queenie said...

Where's the gold, Ian? Did Anthony mention what happened the Spanish treasury, taken away by train by the Stalinists to pay for 'costs'.

ian said...

He mentions the gold. I think it was "used up" in "handling charges".